Love's Labour's Lost, NT Olivier, London
Honour, NT Cottesloe, London
The Green Man, Bush, London
Accidental Death of an Anarchist, Donmar Warehouse, London
Parting is such sugary sorrow
Sunday 02 March 2003
Presumably Love's Labour's Lost is meant to be Sir Trev's gooey, goodbye treat. It's one helluva lavish, sugary farewell from the National's outgoing artistic director. Apologies if I sound ungrateful. I think it's splendid that Nunn contributed some of his own money to the National. However, watching his staging of Shakespeare's early romantic comedy – translated to an Edwardian country estate – is like drowning in a vat of condensed milk.
John Gunter's set is pretty as a picture – a Merchant Ivory picture. Maybe the movie contract has, in fact, already been signed as Joseph Fiennes' Berowne and his three aristocratic chums idle in linen suits in a forest glade that comes complete with hectares of real grass, a vast beech and cohorts of gamekeepers and cute village schoolboys. Nunn's choruses of "common folk" always look peculiarly cheesy though they do alert you to class relations.
This lot are soon joined by the four ladies who distract the lords from their sworn devotion to books by swanning round in lace gowns. Regrettably, this is all so excessively gorgeous that the "gorge rises at it", especially when composer Steven Edis's syrupy score is added to the mix.
And it doesn't mask the potentially arid and bald aspects of the script – the archaic jokes and schematic couplings. A better antidote would have been for Nunn's actors to really exude the zest of youth and of sharp minds stimulated by schooling.
Berowne's beloved Rosaline, played by Kate Fleetwood, is more smug than sparky, and Fiennes' Berowne is a handsomely lolling humorist with no aggressive edge. So the tempering penance his sweetheart imposes on him – trying to make the dying laugh for a year – seems peculiarly harsh.
Still, some scenes charm with Simon Day's nerdy King and Olivia Williams's teasing yet sensitive Princess. The narrative frame Nunn imposes, where Berowne is perhaps fatally shot on a First World War battlefield, also fits with the sombre turn this comedy takes.
One should also note that Nunn's reign is generally ending on a high with The Talking Cure, Janet McTeer in The Duchess of Malfi and, now, Roger Mitchell's intense UK premiere of Honour. Written by Australia's Joanna Murray-Smith, this is a portrait of a marriage shattered by a late-life crisis. Corin Redgrave's George, a successful writer, suddenly bins his devoted wife, Eileen Atkins' Honor, for a heady affair with a smart young journalist, Catherine McCormack's Claudia.
Murray-Smith's writing, at its best, is searching and droll, naturalistic and poetically honed. Occasionally, McCormack's feminist Claudia sounds wooden. But Redgrave lets fierce egocentricity seep subtly through mild manners. Atkins's progress from confidence to grief to independence is riveting, as is Anna Maxwell Martin playing their shocked, furious daughter. Michell's traverse staging – with a Japanese minimalist feel to its sandy blinds and bare floor – tightly contains any sentimentality in this sometimes harrowing play.
Extramarital flings and whisky-fuelled aggression are going to sever whatever ties bind the blokes in Doug Lucie's new pub drama, The Green Man, especially since the construction company boss, Mitch, crassly scoffs at his sensitive foreman, Lou, for not being a "real man". I reckon The Priory is going to have to open another wing, to cope with the growing addiction to setting plays in boozers. It must be said, though, Lucie's script is no match for The Weir.
Simon Stokes' production is highly commendable. Julie Legrand excels as the tough landlady, Linda, who has a soft-spot for Phil Daniels' scruffy, brooding Lou. But Mitch seems relentlessly vile, even though Danny Webb endows him with a nervous underside. Also, in spite of Lucie's ear for chat, the conflicts can seem repetitive.
Finally, artistic director Michael Grandage is taking the Donmar in new directions with an emphasis on modern European classics. This looks disastrous at first in Robert Delamere's revival of Accidental Death of an Anarchist. Dario Fo's satirical farce was political dynamite in Italy in 1970, alluding to the "accidental" fall from a police station window of a radical supposed bomber. Though terrorism and deaths in custody are, of course, relevant to Britain, Simon Nye's bouncy new English adaptation lacks Fo's original trenchant topicality.
Rhys Ifans' initial zany antics seem desperately hyperactive too. Playing the lunatic who – after the "fall" – sneaks into the coppers HQ armed with disguises, Ifans leaps around in a Spiderman suit, tiresomely switching accents. Emma Amos is also awkward as the blonde bombshell journalist who snoops round near the end. Nevertheless, the central send-up of the justice system becomes coruscating as Ifans transmogrifies into a judge who conducts a mock-investigation into the "accident". Veering between damning sarcasm and egging on preposterous alibis, he scares Adrian Scarborough's thuggish Superintendent silly. Getting the cops to tearfully chorus protest ballads – shaking handcuffs like tambourines – is a wonderful flight of fancy with a sardonic sting in its tail.
'Love's Labour's Lost' & 'Honour': NT, London SE1 (020 7452 3000), to 18 March & 27 March respectively; 'The Green Man': Bush, London W12 (020 7610 4224), to 22 March; 'Accidental Death of an Anarchist': Donmar Warehouse, London WC2 (020 7369 1732), to 19 April
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